Many people still view Stephenson Harwood primarily through the lens of its shipping work. It's easy to see why: in the last three years the firm has handled the biggest maritime navigation claim to ever hit London's insurance markets, and helped to finance the largest vessel built in China. But there's a lot more to SH. It's international – with offices and associations spanning Asia, Europe and the Middle East – and despite being full-service, it's recognised for its work in five key areas: asset finance; commercial litigation and arbitration; corporate finance; marine and international trade (of course); and real estate. It was also one of the first UK firms to take the plunge and enter the Asian market by opening shop in Hong Kong back in 1979. That, incidentally, was the same year that SH lawyers played a pivotal role in freeing hostages during the Iranian hostage crisis by helping to unfreeze Iranian assets – a case which earned the firm praise from then US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.
Today over 25% of SH people are based in the Greater China and South-East Asia offices, a figure which reflects relationships cemented since SH's inception: co-founder William Harwood established the firm back in 1875 upon his return to London after practising law in China. 2013 has seen SH inject further investment into the region, and in May the firm announced its launch in Beijing– a move to further draw in clients from China's financial and administrative centre – as well as two new associations with firms in Singapore and Myanmar. SH is playing the pioneer again, this time by becoming the first UK firm to establish connections in the latter location – although it is also playing it safe by forming an association instead of merging and opening up a fully fledged office (which Myanmar currently permits). In Singapore it's a different story: the new association was formed in light of the firm's unsuccessful application for a qualifying foreign law practice licence. It lost out to American big boys Sidley Austin, Jones Day and Gibson Dunn. For now, the association complements an office which specialises in offshore maritime arbitration work, for which it doesn't need a licence.
Elsewhere, SH has also been busy of late, establishing a new office in Dubai and beefing up its Paris offering by adding a disputes team to the transactional-heavy office following the dissolution of its alliance with French firm BCTG & Associes. These moves occurred as part of an ongoing plan to boost the firm's international arbitration capability across several locations in the network, which makes sense given that litigation was the biggest fee generator in 2011/2012.
Speaking of turnover, the latest figures have been good, all things considered. SH reported a flat turnover for the second quarter of the 2012/13 financial year – a quarter which Deloitte described as one of the slowest for law firms in seven years, with many firms posting disappointing results.
Hold your horses!
Before each rotation trainees list three seat preferences. “The firm certainly does try to match people,” said one source, “but it doesn't always work out, and sometimes things are out of our control.” Some people had been “left unhappy,” but the majority of our contacts felt that their preferences had been met.
Commercial litigation “has been the most popular department in terms of receiving NQ applications, and it is by far our largest department, too.” It covers insolvency, IP, regulatory, arbitration, property litigation and general litigation. “This department has all these teams developing within it which are big enough and busy enough to keep each trainee exclusively for the duration of the seat.” The focus of the group's high-end litigation has revolved around the energy, investment and banking sectors, and the firm turned some heads when it acted for Rabobank in a case involving a horse named London that was due to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games as part of the Dutch equestrian team. As it turns out, London was in fact an asset embroiled in the collapse of Dutch real estate group Eurocommerce, and owners of the group were attempting to place London out of reach of Rabobank, to whom pledges were owed. Plans to sell London to a Qatari sheikh were foiled, and SH managed to get an injunctive relief to prohibit removal of the horse, but not before London triumphed at the Olympics, winning two silver medals.
The IP team does a mix of litigation and advisory work and advises some very well-known UK and global brands. In regulatory “the vast majority of our work is financial services-related and can involve insider trading market abuse – many of these cases are high-profile. I've been going to client offices to take witness statements as well attending FSA meetings with clients and drafting advice.” In comparison, insolvency comes with “an awful lot of research. One of the biggest tasks I've had is reviewing documents for potential disclosure.” Arbitrations “happen every now and again,” and when they do, “it's a very good experience.”
We heard the MIT (marine and international trade) seat is “excellent” and part of a “very successful team – the one that the firm is well known for.” The team recently advised Groupama, a lead insurer on a claim relating to engine damage sustained by a Greek vessel called the 'Navios Apollon'. The original claim was for $44m, but SH managed to whittle down the final amount paid to $5.8m. Trainees said that “it's not just shipping litigation; there's a significant amount of international trade and a lot of shipbuilding contract work. I was working on the contracting of raw materials, and there was only a short window to conduct negotiations. My supervisor and I were writing supply contracts and altering them to the specific needs of each transaction – it was quite technical stuff.” Others had been involved in a “large shipbuilding arbitration” and spent the majority of their time coordinating the disclosure process. Some also mentioned the opportunity to “travel and write articles for certain publications.”
Trainees can also get their shipping fix in SH's shipping finance team, which is a part of the broader finance department: “There's a lot of responsibility here if you want it. You can be sent to closing meetings abroad, and often trainees are sent somewhere in Europe. We help structure and draft supporting documentation for high-value loans backed by vessel securities. You might also be responsible for registering a vessel and making sure everything is compliant.” Other teams in the finance department include aviation, rail, banking and real estate. In 2011 SH worked on one of the largest deals in aviation history, advising Lion Air on the purchase of 230 Boeing aircraft in a deal worth $21.7bn. The deal was so big that Barack Obama himself oversaw the signing of it. Sources said that “we tend to work for airlines rather than banks, and we've been working with many of the emerging low-cost airlines in the Asian region, buying planes from Boeing and Airbus. You have quite a regular delivery schedule, and the pace picks up quite a bit in the run up to a delivery. The only drawback is that Airbuses are delivered in Toulouse and Boeings in Seattle, so things can get a little stressful!”
SH's mid-market corporate department is split into the following seats: corporate finance (which is a general seat covering M&A and securities work); tax; funds; competition; projects; and commercial, outsourcing and technology. On the M&A side, SH attracts many companies and recently advised Eland Oil & Gas on its $154m acquisition of a 45% stake in a Nigerian oil mining lease. A trainee in corporate finance told us “the first half of my seat was taken up by due diligence for a massive transaction involving the listing of a London company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, but the second half of my seat was more enjoyable – I was engaged in more drafting and attended shareholder meetings.” The projects team is a “fairly new addition to the firm” and has most recently overseen projects in the UK, Singapore, Greece and Ireland. Lawyers help out on bidding strategies, risk management and procurement. As one trainee shared: “I joined at a quieter time of year, but it still feels quite different to corporate, even though you're considered a corporate trainee.” Funds trainees “really enjoyed” their seat, telling us “it's extremely varied, and you'll never do the same thing twice. It's a nice mix of research and transactional stuff. I've worked on setting up new funds, going to the market to get money for existing ones and restructuring funds as well.”
When it comes to real estate, SH is taking the lead, along with Berwin Leighton Paisner, on the purchase and development of Amersand, an 80,000 sq ft site on the corner of Oxford Street and Wardour Street in London. SH's role involves advising Hong Kong real estate and private equity specialists Peterson Group on the £121m acquisition, which represents its very first property investment in Europe. Sources said the department is “terrific and extremely busy. As a trainee you're given your own transactions to work on, and the level of client contact is superb.”
Singa-snore? Don't think so...
The overseas seats in Singapore and Hong Kong are “extremely popular,” so there's “a lot of competition for spaces.” Every rotation, two spots are open to trainees in each location. “Hong Kong is always very popular, while Singapore is less so – it has a reputation for being crazy busy all the time, which puts people off a bit.”
Sources who'd completed a stint in Singapore told us the hours are “comparable to London, though possibly longer because they don't always have the manpower – they really need the two trainees.” The office covers a range of shipping finance, aviation finance, MIT and corporate work, and is “very popular with clients” in this region, meaning that “they pile on the work, and you just have to muck in and get on with it. You get thrown in at the deep end, but the partners are fantastic.”
Those who'd spent time in Hong Kong said “it's really interesting to look at a different legal system based on English law, but at the same time it does mean that there are limitations in what you can do.” Nonetheless, the office's small size means “there's less division between teams, so you can take on a variety of work that in London you wouldn't be able to do unless you were sitting in that specific department.” Corporate/finance forms the bulk of the work here, but litigation and real estate matters are sometimes available. All sources with secondment experience commended the support they received and were especially praiseworthy of “the very nice apartments” they temporarily resided in.
Going forward, the firm's aim is to “get above being a mid-tier, mid-sized City firm. We don't want to be a magic or silver circle firm, but we do want to be one of the top firms in the City.” It looks like SH will focus on “continuing to build a good name and shouting louder. We're so much more than a 'shipping' firm – just look at our litigation and finance practices.” Among trainee predictions were the anticipated expansion of the real estate practice, as well as “targeted growth in Africa.” Indeed the firm has long-term intentions to grow internationally but can't confirm anything concrete at this stage.
Sources praised CEO Sharon White for giving speeches and sending emails which highlight “how we're doing, who the new hires are and why we're moving in a certain direction. She even holds a trainee-only session that goes into what our role as a trainee is in that wider strategy.” White was also commended for “acknowledging the firm's weaknesses and where we need to improve.” One such perceived weakness was that “the firm is not very good at marketing itself, despite the good work that we do. Many clients are surprised when they come to the building and see how great it is. It's a sign of where the firm is and where it is going.” Others added that “there's scope to grow within this building. There's a clear strategy, and there's room to accommodate it. I can't think of any area that will contract.”
“The building may well influence the atmosphere as well,” suggested another trainee: “The offices are big and very light and airy, which fosters an environment that's very friendly and collaborative; there's none of that competitive nonsense!” There's little sense of hierarchy at social events, in which “you'll find trainees chatting to partners” and plenty of chances to mingle as well.
The Christmas party, most recently held at The Marriott, is “always nice,” while many departments hold monthly lunches. “We're really into the team stuff,” said one source, who enthusiastically described a “thriving” netball league, cricket matches in the summer and football games every Monday night. For those with a more peaceful disposition, yoga classes are held every Friday. The trainee intake is close, thanks to its size. “It's small compared to a magic circle firm. Everyone knows each other, and people go out every week for drinks – not just on a Friday, but mid-week as well.” Trainees also receive a budget for “young professionals events,” in which they invite “potential contacts” for food and cocktails at the firm. These dos are designed to stimulate networking and business development. “There's no pressure, but they do encourage us to get to know the clients and attend events.”
Trainees get “very useful” induction sessions each time they join a new department. Most cram these sessions into the first few days, but commercial litigation “is different – the training is stretched throughout the course of the seat.” There are also “regular know-how sessions” in each department as well as external seminars, which help to “make you alert and aware of things that you're not directly working on.”
The qualification process is “generally handled quite well,” but things can occasionally get quite tricky: “Many trainees want a place in commercial litigation, but they can only take on so many people!” There are of course “exceptions to that trend,” and sources assured us “if they like you and you're not successful in your first interview for an NQ position, then they'll try to offer you something else.” In 2013 the firm kept on 13 out of 16 qualifiers.
“Anyone who applies here will get a damn good training contract,” agreed trainees, many of whom bemoaned a reality where this firm too often gets overlooked. If you're looking for international opportunities and a broad mix of expertise, then don't be too quick to dismiss Stephenson Harwood.
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